The Rise and Fall of BuzzFeed News




How is it that, without a printing press or a broadcast pipe, by sharing something with a few friends, I can reach millions of people?
–Jonah Peretti

Following the lead of pioneers like Arianna Huffington, more and more digital natives began creating new sites for journalism online. One of the most successful was Jonah Peretti, a restless, curious young man from California. Born in Oakland in 1974, Peretti applied himself to one of the central issues involved in putting journalism online: what kind of news do people want to share with their friends?
After graduating from the University of California-Santa Cruz in 1996, he taught school for a few years in New Orleans, then entered the celebrated graduate program at the MIT Media Lab, an institution devoted to disrupting old media. One day in 2001, while he was supposed to be working on his master’s thesis about learning and technology, he was surfing the internet and noticed a marketing campaign by Nike. The sportswear giant was conducting a promotion – called Nike iD – that invited customers to personalize a pair of shoes with a slogan of their own printed on them. Peretti, a self-described “smart-ass” seeking to mock the company for its Third World labor practices, tried to customize his Nike shoes with the word SWEATSHOP. Nike balked and sent him an email of bureaucratic mush suggesting that his request was “inappropriate.” Peretti persisted.

Dear NIKE iD,
Thank you for your quick response to my inquiry about my custom ZOOM XC USA running shoes. Although I commend you for your prompt customer service, I disagree with the claim that my personal iD was inappropriate slang. After consulting Webster’s Dictionary, I discovered that “sweatshop” is in fact part of standard English, and not slang. The word means: “a shop or factory in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions” and its origin dates from 1892. So my personal iD does meet the criteria detailed in your first email. Your web site advertises that the NIKE iD program is “about freedom to choose and freedom to express who you are.” I share Nike’s love of freedom and personal expression. The site also says that “If you want it done right . . . build it yourself.” I was thrilled to be able to build my own shoes, and my personal iD was offered as a small token of appreciation for the sweatshop workers poised to help me realize my vision. I hope that you will value my freedom of expression and reconsider your decision to reject my order.
Thank you, Jonah Peretti

The email chain lengthened. Then, Peretti sent the corporate emails from Nike to some friends. One of the friends posted the email chain on his website. People noticed. Click. Click. Share. Click-share-click-share-chickshareclickshareclick . . . Suddenly, Peretti was present at the creation of one of the first episodes of something “going viral” on the internet. Fascinated, he had found his life’s work.
From MIT, Peretti went to New York City and joined a startup called the Eyebeam art and technology center. He devoted his attention to the phenomenon of “contagious media” – those things that people find online that they not only enjoy but also pass along to their own networks. Peretti wanted to master the new art of causing cascades through networks. He devoted his energy to something he called the “Bored at Work Network” – all those alienated office workers worldwide who had time to kill during the workday while staring at their desktop computers and trying to look busy. Based on his experience, Peretti distilled in emerging philosophy in a manifesto he called “Notes on Contagious Media.” It consisted of 23 numbered paragraphs, each of which makes an assertion about the nature of viral content. Several key passages:

5 Contagious media is best understood from a social perspective. It does not matter if it is an email, a movie, or a game. What matters is how it diffuses virally through human-powered networks.

9 Contagious media is defined by its audience, not its author. The audience decides if a particular project is art, activism, or entertainment. The audience decides if the project reaches 10 people or 10 million people. The audience is the network and the critic.

13 To be successful, contagious media projects must be explainable in one sentence or less: “A phone line for rejecting unwanted suitors”; “A site to rate people based on if they are hot or not” . . . If you need more than a sentence to describe a project, you should probably not bother.

Tall and thin, Peretti could usually be seen wearing “smart-looking” glasses and carrying himself with an air of ironic amusement. A casual but intentional dresser, he projected an image of curated dishevelment. He conveyed the sense that he is not just interacting with people but also simultaneously processing the metadata about the interaction. Indeed, he started to see people – especially people in networks – as objects of study. Even before there was a Facebook or a YouTube, Peretti was working on the networking – or social – dimension of the internet. “I started to just try to understand, how does this stuff work? How is it that, without a printing press or a broadcast pipe, by sharing something with a few friends, I can reach millions of people?”

That very question lay at the heart of the new challenges facing everyone involved in journalism. Starting about 2005, the environment for practicing journalism changed again, forcing every species of journalist to adapt or face extinction. The conditions of journalism evolved in directions that shaped both sides of the enterprise – gathering the news and disseminating the news. There were four key developments:
–the spread of high-speed, broadband internet connections, which in turn enabled the use of video and the practice of two-way interactivity.
–the emergence of new platforms, including tablets and smartphones, which in turn contributed to a world in which digital media became ubiquitous, commanding more attention in many Americans’ lives than the physical world.
–the explosion of social media, which not only brought many people together with “friends” new and old, but also created the networks that make it possible for catchy or powerful stories to “go viral.”
–the arrival of “metrics” – the new data that allow journalists to measure, track, and count every story, video, and photo – in a trend that has given new urgency to the old question of journalism’s purpose: is it to entertain or to inform, or some combination of both?

Taken together, those four changes – broadband, platforms, social media, and metrics – transformed the ecology of journalism by the second decade of the twenty-first century. In just a few years, those powerful trends began to drive change throughout the environment for news, challenging the legacy media and helping to give rise to a host of innovative new “native” digital media. The choices people made in the new environment would determine the future of news. For users, many of those choices were driven by boredom, curiosity, or profits. For journalists, many of those choices were existential. The new ecology of journalism put more distance than ever between the emerging media and the traditional forms of printed newspapers and magazines, terrestrial radio, and broadcast television. News became ever more instantaneous, continuous, and out of anyone’s control. For more and more users, more and more often, news arrived unbidden – coming from a friend on Facebook, or from a provocative source on Twitter, or from a stranger who had paid to reach them via phone, tablet, or some other platform.

* * *

In this changed environment, journalists faced a paradox. On the one hand, most of the institutions of journalism, especially those “legacy” operations with a pre-digital past, were struggling or dying. In the early twenty-first century, Americans deserted the newspaper in droves, declining to renew subscriptions to printed papers, leaving many small and mid-sized newspapers devastated. People told pollsters that they did not trust the news media. Newspapers (and even some digital sites) shrank, closed, merged, or got swallowed up into larger entities. Local television news declined in ambition and reach, relying more and more on news provided to them by government agencies – weather, traffic, and crime. As for radio, with the notable exception of National Public Radio and the occasional all-news format AM station, the news on radio barely existed any more.
On the other hand, most of the practices of journalism, especially those created in recent years specifically for the internet, were flourishing. In the early 21st century, journalists found more and better tools for everything they wanted to do, from drone-based cameras to video-editing software – all requiring new skills. “Digital native” sites grew and started offering serious salaries and even employee benefits. Upstart online-only news outlets like ProPublica began winning Pulitzer Prizes. Even as newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters continued to retrench, individual journalists and some of the start-up news sites were doing admirable work. The digital pioneer Esther Dyson observed: “There’s a holy church of journalism, which isn’t doing that well. But there is, if you like, the faith, or the religion of journalism, which is searching for the truth. That still exists and it will persist.” Individual churches might collapse or move, but the faith will survive.

* * *
The fundamental fact facing almost all legacy news media was this: the news media became dependent on money from advertising, and now that money has gone away. A corollary: When ads were plentiful, consumers of news got used to paying much less than the full cost of gathering and editing all that news, and now they must face up to whether they want to pay the real price. Even while the overall economy was recovering from the Great Recession that began in 2008, total newspaper advertising revenue continued to evaporate. In retrospect, it appeared that peak revenue for newspapers occurred sometime in 2005 and 2006. In those years, total ad revenue was just below $50 billion – of which about 95 percent came from the traditional source of advertisers paying to buy space in the newspapers’ printed editions. That was it – the all-time high-water mark for a business model that had really gotten going in the 1830s. By 2016, total revenue for the newspaper industry was just under $20 billion – a drop of about 60 percent from a decade earlier. The bulk of that smaller advertising pie still came from print ad sales – which constituted about 82 percent of the total. At the same time, digital ad sales were rising, but from a very low starting point and at a slow pace. Digital ads contributed a bigger proportion of total revenues not because they were growing but because they were not shrinking.
Not surprisingly, the size of the newsroom workforce in the nation’s newspapers fell relentlessly in the same decade. From a recent peak in 2006 of 55,000 reporters and editors, the ranks of newspaper journalists plunged to fewer than 33,000 ten years later. In other words, employment contracted by about one-third, and about 22,000 newsroom jobs vanished. Some of the lost newsroom positions were made up elsewhere – at new digital ventures and in some expansion at NPR and some television stations. But many of those old jobs simply ceased to exist, which caused a decade of painful layoffs, buy-outs, and firings. It also further weakened those newspapers’ capacity to hold powerful people accountable, as they had to cut the size of their city hall and state house bureaus and pull back from expensive undertakings like covering war, corporate mischief, international news, and investigations.
All the retrenchment and misery in the legacy media was somewhat offset by gains in the money coming to newspapers from the other traditional revenue stream: circulation – that is, charging readers money for the right to read. After years of expecting news on the Web to be free, readers eventually began to decide that all that content might actually be worth paying for. Slowly, credit cards came out and digital subscription rates began to rise.

* * *

While the legacy news media were struggling, the digital natives were proliferating. They had no printing presses that needed ink. They owned no fleets of delivery trucks that needed diesel fuel. They did not need access to cable television. They owed nobody any pension benefits and often did not fund anybody’s health care, either. And they almost never had stockholders looking for regular and growing dividends. Thus, the digital news sites could survive on a comparative trickle of revenue. They had, in short, the right metabolism for the new ecology. They did not do “process” stories (BILL ADVANCES TO NEXT COMMITTEE) or stories “for the record” (THAI PRIME MINISTER ENDURES). Especially during the Obama years, a second generation of digital natives not only succeeded in journalism but also thrived. Like Arianna Huffington, most of them did not come from a hard-news journalism background. Instead of boasting about the newspapers they used to work for, the digital natives talked about generating buzz, churning their metrics, and “winning the internet.” Huffington and the rest of the new generation brought a new sensibility to journalism – restless, irreverent, ferociously fast. Their sites were buzzy and visual and, above all, social, featuring irresistible headlines – known as “clickbait” – that just begged to be shared on social networks. In a war of all against all, they competed at the level of the individual story, slideshow, and headline to gain currency in the new “attention economy.” That approach explained much of the growth of the Huffington Post, which grew from a vanity project to a giant news-and-opinion source, as well as the rise of BuzzFeed, Breitbart, Mashable, Vice, Jezebel, The Undefeated, and many others.

NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 29: Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed speaks onstage at the TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2013 at The Manhattan Center on April 29, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Brian Ach/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

While HuffPo was surging to the front, one of its founders, Jonah Peretti, was already losing interest. What he wanted to know was not what’s new but what’s viral. To Peretti, that question was more compelling than building the HuffPo brand. Despite the excitement of participating in Arianna Huffington’s widely watched startup in lower Manhattan, Peretti was soon bored at work, so in November 2006 he began devoting one day a week to a side project that he called BuzzFeed.
Initially, Peretti thought of it as a new, “internet popularity contest,” and the challenge was to see how many people he could reach and, later, how many of them he could connect to each other in a new, shifting network. In the old days of analog things, a newspaper entered a home or an apartment, and it was an inert object. One or several people read it, and they might comment to each other about an item or two. End of story. The newspaper’s customers were linked to the central node but not to each other. Same with radio and television. They all operated networks, but they were one-directional, sending information and images from a central node to isolated customers. In that one-to-many model, the audience could almost never send a message back to the central source. And audience members could almost never find each other – unless they met in a bar or some other public space and the talk happened to turn to the news.

In the early days at BuzzFeed, Peretti struggled to help the site evolve and adapt to the digital environment. It looked much easier in retrospect than it did as a startup. One issue was video. How could it be optimized for smartphones? How could videos be shared? Could a BuzzFeed video play directly on a platform like Facebook, or would a viewer always have to follow a link back to BuzzFeed’s home page? Another issue was the problem of the ubiquitous (and annoying) banner ad. They were bad enough on a desktop or a laptop, but they did not translate well to the much smaller screens of mobile phones. Like everyone else, Peretti was stumped. Eventually, he turned away from banner ads altogether as artifacts of the print era. Since the days when Macy’s and Gimbel’s had bought full-page ads in the New York World, displaying text and images to sell things had gone unquestioned. Now, Peretti decided that they were so annoying to users that they were not worth the money. All the while, he was devoting more and more time to BuzzFeed, shifting from one day a week to four. When HuffPo sold in 2011, he devoted his full time and energy to BuzzFeed.
Eventually, Peretti and the team at BuzzFeed began to see the possibilities in journalism. News was something that, under the right circumstances, people wanted to share on their own networks. When Peretti and his team started noticing that people were posting more and more news articles on Facebook or linking more news stories on Twitter, they realized that journalism could be just as share-able as K-pop dance videos.

At BuzzFeed, reporting was not an end in itself; reporting was useful so long as it advanced the company’s overarching goal – to get its content shared around the world and across platforms. The goal, Peretti has said many times, is for BuzzFeed to be global, social, and mobile. That is, he wanted to get the most out of the inherent advantage of the internet, which is free, frictionless distribution. He wanted to capitalize on social media, which enabled users to distribute BuzzFeed content far beyond the reach it would have otherwise. Above all, he wanted BuzzFeed content to be designed with mobile devices in mind, so that it would load well and look good on the world’s billions of smartphones.
Another key to BuzzFeed’s success was a new attitude toward advertising. When Peretti turned his back on display ads, the question was how to replace them. One method could be subscriptions, but curtailing access to the site would undercut the goal of going viral and goading users to distribute BuzzFeed content as widely as possible. The answer that Peretti and his team hit upon was a version of native advertising. Some legacy news organizations were also using native advertising, but they do so reluctantly, afraid that it represents a breach in the traditional wall separating “church and state” within news organizations. Peretti is something of an agnostic. As he put it:

I agree wholeheartedly that church and state is really important. The thing I don’t like about the church/state division, as someone who sits above the divide, is that it can lead to a two-tiered system where the journalists are seen as the whole purpose and greatness of everything, and that the people in advertising are seen as a necessary evil. . .

Instead, Peretti embraced native advertising, to the point where there was no separation between ads and stories. Many ads were simply transformed editorially into a quiz or a personality test that just happens to feature brand names. Thus, “Can You Shop at IKEA Without Blowing Your Budget?” or “How Well Do You Know Your Sephora Prices?”
Less visible than ads or content but perhaps more important, BuzzFeed’s true advantage was its use of data. BuzzFeed was just as concerned about the incoming data as the outgoing data. Like everyone else in the news media, BuzzFeed has a home page, and many readers go there to find stories. Like some companies, BuzzFeed also has its own apps that facilitate finding its content on mobile devices. And like very few other companies, BuzzFeed takes advantage of social media to develop a “distributed model” in which many people encounter BuzzFeed content by finding a single story shared on their social network, even if they never visit the BuzzFeed homepage. All the while, data flows back to BuzzFeed about who is sharing what, and why. The goal at BuzzFeed is to learn something every time content is shared, which is not a priority (or even a possibility) at many legacy news media. Peretti is an evangelist for iterative thinking: try something and learn from it.

Ultimately, the point of “buzz” was to learn how to get better at generating buzz. In one case, the results were dramatic. In February 2015, a blogpost appeared on Tumblr showing a dress made of material in two colors. A BuzzFeed editor who monitors Tumblr noticed that there was a lot of traffic around the dress. Some people saw it as black and blue; others saw it as white and gold. BuzzFeed posted a simple poll on the evening of February 26, inviting readers to judge the colors for themselves. The result was an episode in the madness of crowds. The number of concurrent visitors to the BuzzFeed site peaked at 673,000. Twitter exploded too. At its height, the hashtag “TheDress” appeared in 11,000 tweets per minute, and it soon turned into a bonafide global phenomenon. The Washington Post called it “the drama that divided a planet.” Was any of this journalism? Hard to say, but it seems likely that publishers of popular newspapers like Benjamin Day or Joseph Pulitzer would have appreciated it, even while most of the journalistic establishment either snickered or ignored it.

Buzzfeed was described as an “insane morphing rocket ship” and as “the most important news organization in the world.” On the other hand, it was condemned as “the single biggest threat to journalism ever created.” It was never intended to provide a one-stop comprehensive accounting of the world’s doings. In that sense, BuzzFeed is not really in the big-time news business. But it is important to understand that Peretti is not a zany and irresponsible imitator of a serious journalist.

It was not the case that he was trying to make BuzzFeed into the New York Times and failing at it. Like Pulitzer, Luce, or Ted Turner before him, he was trying to reimagine the definition of news and reinvent the mechanism for delivering it. On his own terms, he was, for a time, a raging success. A few years ago, BuzzFeed had 7 billion monthly global views of its content, more than 200 million monthly visitors to its website, more than 90 million unique monthly visitors from outside the United States, about 1,500 employees worldwide (mostly in New York and Los Angeles), and a growing number of bureaus around the world. At the same time, it must be noted that BuzzFeed news did not serve any particular locality or try to keep any state or local government honest.

Instead, the goal was long-term sustainability. After losing money for many years running, BuzzFeed began turning a profit in 2013. It is not a publicly traded company, so details are not easy to come by. According to one estimate, the company’s annual ad revenue was about $100 million, which is not much by the standards of big media. Nevertheless, BuzzFeed was on a growth trajectory that made it very attractive to investors. In the summer of 2015, the old-media company Comcast bought a stake in BuzzFeed that lifted its estimated value to $1.5 billion. That should have made BuzzFeed news sustainable for a while. . . .

p.s. I wrote that in 2017, and I was proven wrong just six years later. This may be why historians should stick to the past and leave the future to others.


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Antebellum Ideologies of Liberation

By Christopher B. Daly

March 25, 2022 / Boston University


In this essay, I will be presenting some highlights from a new book I am working on, called The Democratic Art. That book is an exploration of how, between the 1840s and the end of WWII, the newsrooms of America served as ports of entry and incubators for many major figures in American literature and the visual arts.

Today, I want to focus is on three bold figures active before the Civil War: Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and Frederick Douglass.

All three were successors to the Founding generation. All three were journalists. All three helped formulate a sweeping new agenda for social justice.

In brief, the Founders had engaged in a rights revolution that we might call “leveling down.” That is, among the goals articulated in their pamphlets, in the Declaration, and in the Constitution were some truly revolutionary changes to British society: no monarchy, no hereditary aristocracy, no primogeniture. We might think of that bundle of changes as “topping” the upper reaches of society. That is: rank, titles, and power would all be capped. The result (for propertied white males at least) would be a society whose upper ranks would be relatively broad and much less steep than the upper ranks of British society.

After the Revolution, however, it is important to note that the lower ranks of American society remained at least as unequal as those in Britain.

–Indentured servitude was widespread.

–Women and girls were treated as appurtenances of males.

–The population of enslaved chattel was subject to routine brutality.

So, while the American Revolution deserves its place in the history of liberating individuals and making society, as a whole, somewhat less unequal, much remained to be done.

         Between 1845 and 1855, a cohort of loosely connected allies radically widened the agenda for freedoms. Freedoms that were personal, intimate, and innate. This trio of journalist-activists demanded nothing less than an end to sexism, homophobia, and racism.

Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, and Frederick Douglass emerged to me as heroes. In their writings, they all pointed the way to a fairer and freer world. Fuller battled sexism; Douglass battled racism; Whitman, in his way, battled homophobia. They raised their voices to promote the idea that each individual matters and that each individual has an equal right to self-determination. Like leaves of grass, none are taller, better, or more important. But also like leaves of grass, none are lesser, inferior, or unimportant.

In their time, Fuller, Douglass, and Whitman took republican democracy as a starting point and envisioned a leveling in an upward social direction – no more enslaved people, no more second-class citizens. All are one. All are not identical, but all are equal in worth and dignity.


First, Fuller. Born in 1810, Margaret Fuller was the oldest child of Timothy Fuller, a prosperous lawyer and member of Congress representing Cambridge, Massachusetts. He poured all his talents and energy into educating Margaret, up to the point where the boys her age were preparing to enter Harvard and other colleges. But with no college in America accepting girls at the time, Margaret faced a closed door. She tried many stratagems to keep pace with the men her age – beginning with teaching.

At the time, a paradox defined the status of most women. They were supposed to live up to two conflicting ideals.

After thinking about her own situation and ransacking the pages of classic and contemporary literature, Fuller put forth a bold agenda. In her 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, she took up the question her own life presented: why are women treated so poorly?

On the one hand, women, especially middle- and upper-class women, were considered delicate flowers who needed to be sheltered from the filth and strife of activities like business, the military, and politics. They were expected to be virgins until marriage. After that, they were expected to become the center of the home, where they would provide moral uplift and basic education to a large number of children.

At the same time, women, especially working-class and poor women, were also considered beasts of burden who should cook, clean, wash, nurse, and meet the needs of others all the livelong day and well into the night. They were seen by men as sturdy, dirty, and flirty. In almost no case did men consider it worthwhile to educate girls; they were too often seen as ruled by feminine “sensibility” (emotions) and not by manly “sense” (reason).

Education would be wasted on girls. Even worse, it might leave them discontented with their lot in life.

In her Woman in the Nineteenth Century, Fuller raised key questions: Why should men exercise a power that amounts to legal conservatorship over women? Why should women be relegated to the status of children or mental defectives?

Fuller advanced two remarkable arguments. First, she argued, men and women are not opposites, and one sex is not superior to the other. Indeed, she said the evidence suggests that men and women are complementary and that the elements of the gender extremes are usually present in everyone, to varying degrees. Thus, she continued, most men are “womanly” to some extent, and most women are “manly” to some extent.

In other words, everyone is a mixed case of attributes. Since the sexes are not fixed at opposite poles, there is no basis for saying that one sex is suited only for certain activities —  and therefore no basis for denying members of either sex the opportunity to find out what they are good at. Not everyone will be equally adept at all things, but we will never know if we don’t let individuals find out for themselves. Of course, it stands to reason, then, that girls should be educated alongside boys. Given a chance, she wrote, there was nothing that women could not do. In a famous formulation, she wrote: “Let them be sea-captains if they like!”


         Next, Whitman. Born in 1819 into a downwardly mobile family in Brooklyn, young Walt went to school for a few years, then began to learn the printer’s trade. Like many bright boys with nimble fingers, he started by learning to set type, working at New York City’s growing roster of newspapers, magazines, and book publishers.

         Throughout much of the 1840s, while he was in his 20s, Whitman was composing his poetic masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855. During that drafting period, we know that he was reading Fuller and Douglass.

Walt Whitman, detail from the frontspiece to the 1855 edition. Engraving by Hollyer.

We also know that Walt Whitman loved men.[i] Of that there is no doubt. But almost every other aspect of Whitman’s sexual life is shrouded in mystery, red herrings, misconceptions, hints and rumors, claims and counter-claims, along with outright fabrications. We also know for sure that Whitman never married.

Of course, the text can be considered separate from the man. But I believe that when an author declares again and again that his main poetic purpose is to compose and sing songs of himself, then we cannot help but ask: OK, poet, just who are you anyway?

For Whitman, in matters of love and sex, the stakes were very high – both for his actions and for his words. During Whitman’s lifetime, it was illegal in New York state for a man to have sex with another man. Moreover, as Whitman well knew, a sizable portion of the population considered sexual acts between men repugnant. Indeed, the very terms “gay” and “homosexual” as we understand them were not part of the nineteenth century American consciousness or vocabulary. So, in trying to reveal himself as a man who loved men, Whitman had to be somewhat circumspect.

By his own accounts, he knew quite a few men intimately. In New York, he was a frequent rider of the horse-drawn omnibuses, even when he had no particular place to go, just so he could meet the drivers. He knew all the bus teamsters and spent a lot of time with them – “not only for comradeship, and sometimes affection.”

Looking back years later, Whitman added: “I suppose the critics will laugh heartily, but the influence of those Broadway omnibus jaunts and drivers and declamations and escapades undoubtedly entered into the gestation of Leaves of Grass.”

In his debut edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman downplayed the homoerotic elements of his life and poetry. It was not until the 1860 edition that he dared to include the “Calamus” cluster of poems, which are replete with phallic imagery and passionate promises to one or more male lovers.

In an essay on the bicentennial of Whitman’s birth in 1819, the author and critic Jeremy Lybarger argued that Whitman’s homosexuality was key to his development as a poet: 

. . . The Whitman who remains most central to whatever has become of the “American experiment” is the poet who cruised the streets of New York, who skinny-dipped with rough trade, who caroused in pick-up bars and lowdown dives, who ministered to the bodies of young soldiers, who loafed with boys in the fields and backwoods of a perpetual frontier.

In the end, with such a sparse record about the sex life of such a complex character, there may be no simple answer to Whitman’s sexuality and its consequences. But I think that, as always, Whitman was himself pointing us to an answer.

Even considering the standards of literary decorum and good taste in the Victorian era, Leaves of Grass was quite daring about sex. Whitman was actually quite frank and even bold.

Throughout, he not only praises sexuality in general. He not only hails the bodies (and body parts) of both the male and the female. He also leaves behind flags and emblems telling readers that he himself is not only heterosexual, he’s also homosexual, pansexual, and sometimes beyond-sexual. Whitman gives us the sense that if he could, he would make love to the whole world – one by one, or all at once! This attitude underlies his pervasive sense of solidarity with all people. Like Fuller and Douglass, Whitman resisted all invidious distinctions, declaring, for example, that “I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man.”

Just a peek into his vast masterpiece:

The section we now know as “I Sing the Body Electric” is a chant for equality – between the sexes, between the races, between the slave and the free. Whitman says we all have these amazing bodies; that alone makes us equal. He shares with readers a glimpse of his “loveflesh swelling and deliciously aching / Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous . . .  / quivering jelly of love”

For all his frankness, though, Whitman could not possibly have written an explicit manifesto for gay rights in the midst of the Victorian era. Given that same-sex sex was widely considered a sin or a crime or both, he was boldly telling the world to think anew.


         Finally, Douglass. Born into slavery, likely in 1818, Douglass essentially taught himself to read and write – skills forbidden to almost all enslaved people. At age 20, he liberated himself from enslavement in Maryland and made his way north. He joined the organized abolition movement, becoming a popular paid speaker bearing witness to the horrors he knew from his upbringing. When he tired of telling his story over and over again, he decided to write it down. The result was his great Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the first of three autobiographies he would write. He published it in 1845 – the same year Fuller published Woman in the 19th Century.

Naturally, Douglass was a fierce opponent of slavery. But it’s worth noting what kind of opponent he was. Douglass was a radical abolitionist. That meant several concrete things:

Fronstpiece from Douglass’s 1851 Narrative
  • He demanded immediate emancipation (no gradualism; no compensation)
  • He demanded full equal rights (no colonization or return to Africa)

In 1847, he became a “movement journalist” – publisher, editor, and writer of the North Star, a weekly abolitionist newspaper in Rochester, New York.

In 1848, he traveled to nearby Seneca Falls to take part in the first convention devoted to women’s rights, inspired in part by Margaret Fuller’s book of three years earlier. Douglass was not the only man at the gathering, but he was the only Black delegate.

Douglass remained a steadfast, public supporter of women’s rights for the rest of his life as well as a personal friend to Anthony and other suffragists.


         To bring this all to a point.

In 1851, Douglass merged his North Star with another paper and brought forth a new publication, which he candidly titled Frederick Douglass’ Paper. For that new newspaper, he also rolled out a new motto:

                  ALL RIGHTS FOR ALL.

Hear that:

                  ALL RIGHTS FOR ALL.

There, in four words, Douglass encapsulated the most expansive social-justice agenda possible. Taken literally, it would mean an end not just to slavery but also to racism, sexism, homophobia, and all other forms of oppression. It could serve as the rallying cry for all the progressive movements that were to come.

Together, then, Fuller, Whitman, and Douglass had laid out a broad challenge: it was not enough to lower the top end of society. It was just as urgent to raise up the bottom.

All rights for all.

All are not identical, but all are equal in worth and dignity. This was one of the main meanings of Whitman’s notion of “leaves of grass.” Society should be broad; it should be diverse; but none should tower over others. None should be permanently subjugated. None should be despised for being themselves.

Together, those three antebellum radical journalists outlined an agenda of personal liberation that we are still working to fully realize.

That was – and is – the great project. All Rights for All.

[i] This discussion of Whitman’s sexuality draws on a large and growing body of scholarly and critical work that has emerged in tandem with the modern gay rights movement. For about a century, the subject little attention – either because scholars and critics considered it taboo or because they found that Whitman’s expressions of love for men, while exuberant, fell within the nineteenth-century understanding of same-sex affections. Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, discussions of Whitman’s sexuality have become more numerous and more frank. Throughout this section, I draw on works by David S. Reynolds, Justin Kaplan, Jerome Loving, Hugh Ryan, Ed Folsom, Ted Genoways, Betsy Erkkila, Martin Murray, and others.


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Ukraine’s leader, a Capra-style hero, is winning support by using a key American tactic from WWII

Demonstrators watch an address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the big screen during a rally in support of Ukraine in Tbilisi, Georgia, on March 4. (Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images)

[Originally published in The Washington Post, “Made by History,” March 10, 2022]

By Christopher B. Daly

As the latest land war in Europe grinds on in Ukraine, the fighting extends well beyond the military combat on the ground. Both sides are also waging a propaganda war — an old tactic updated with an array of new weapons and techniques.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has emerged as a master communicator, using social media platforms to bypass Russian censorship and communicate to the Ukrainian people. In his Instagram and Twitter posts and videos, he has outwitted Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and managed to capture the world’s attention with his direct and honest messaging — a feat in an age of snark and fakery. In this way, Zelensky has succeeded in showing the world that Ukraine — far from being a lost colony welcomed back to Mother Russia — is the victim of a war of aggression that was unprovoked and has been, so far, unsuccessful. In doing so, he is building on a wartime playbook advanced by the United States and other countries during World War II: mobilizing new communications technology as a weapon of war.

U.S. wartime propaganda from World War II played an important role in training troops, enhancing civilian morale and raising money for the war effort. Consider, for example, the famous series “Why We Fight,” created by Hollywood in the service of the U.S. War Department and directed by Frank Capra, the renowned creator of such beloved and sentimental American movie classics as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Capra, an Italian immigrant and U.S. Army veteran who served during World War I, viewed Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as a unique global threat. Hitler’s primary propagandist was Leni Riefenstahl, a filmmaker. Understanding the power of film to persuade and evoke emotions, Capra was particularly worried about the effectiveness of Riefenstahl’s propaganda. Plus, he watched as wartime rationing sidelined most Hollywood production, sapping the American film industry of its own potential to persuade.

Capra and others in the film industry pushed the White House to mobilize Hollywood talent just as the government had mobilized other American industries, including car and textile production, in support of the war effort. American film, Capra said, could effectively counter Nazi messaging, and the impact could be as important as the building of fighter planes or production of military uniforms.

The idea, embraced enthusiastically by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his military chief of staff, George C. Marshall, was that such films could explain to recruits why they were being asked to go and fight in far-off lands. At first, the “Why We Fight” series was meant to be shown just in Army boot camps, but when Roosevelt screened an early entry in the series, he was so impressed that he ordered the government to pay for the rights to screen the films in free showings for all American moviegoers.

What was Capra’s message?

In “The Battle of Russia,” Capra drove home the theme that the Nazi assault on Russia was uniquely barbaric for two reasons: First, it was unprovoked. Second, it involved the dreadful tactic of laying siege to major cities and shelling civilian populations.

On an emotional level, the film made the case that the Russians were a stalwart people and that the United States could count on them as allies. Capra showed individual Russians in close-ups, including babushkas digging trenches and factory workers making munitions, and he showed civilians, including children, dying from indiscriminate shelling. He even showed a still image of a dead elephant at the Leningrad Zoo, killed by German bombs. In an eerie echo, the current Russian shelling of civilian areas in Ukraine led to reports about the trauma inflicted on the elephant in Kyiv’s zoo. (The animal was still alive at press time.)

By contrast, Capra depicted the Germans as faceless aggressors, shown only from behind or in groups. Through Capra’s lens, these German armies violated all standards of decency by reviving a medieval tactic of siege and engaging in bombing campaigns that killed innocent civilians. His most insistent indictment of the Nazi attackers was the shelling of noncombatants. Using actual footage supplied by the Soviet Red Army, Capra showed bombs falling night and day, followed by close-ups of dead men, women and children.

In Capra’s eyes in the 1940s films of “Why We Fight,” the Russians were to be admired for their determination to endure the brutal siege.

Today, the filmmaker would surely have cast the Ukrainian people in that heroic role, while the Russian army and its leader would be the brutal aggressors. In Ukraine, Zelensky — a figure straight out of a Capra movie, having been plucked from obscurity and thrust into a heroic role — is rallying his compatriots to stand firm. Meanwhile, Putin is playing the villainous role of the Hitler figure, launching a criminal assault on women and children. In one of the great ironies of European history, the Russians have effectively traded places with the Germans of World War II, by launching a ground war against a neighbor and using the brutal tactic of raining artillery down indiscriminately among civilians.

No one knows this better than the Russians, who endured the brutal German siege of Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg) as well as Moscow, Stalingrad and other cities. Putin, as a native of Leningrad, probably heard horror stories about the siege that his family endured, so he should know even better than most about the suffering of civilians when they are attacked in war. He does not need Capra to remind him.

It is often said that when war comes, the first casualty is truth. But that does not mean all wartime communication is fake. Today, as the propaganda war rages, it may well turn out that the ultimate weapon in the information wars might just be the kind of truth Zelensky has been wielding in videos that show him alive in his office, not running away.

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By Christopher B. Daly

Christopher B. Daly is a reporter, historian and professor at Boston University and the author of the prize-winning study of the history of U.S. journalism titled “Covering America.”

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The Pentagon Papers @ 50

From the Washington Post “Made by History,” June 13, 2021

Chris Daly

Made by History


Fifty years ago the Pentagon Papers shocked America — and they still matter today

We still confront questions about press freedom and the public’s right to know government secrets

Front pages from the The Washington Post and the New York Times when they published stories about the Pentagon Papers in June 1971. (The Washington Post)
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By Christopher B. Daly

Christopher B. Daly is a reporter, historian and professor at Boston University and the author of the prize-winning study of the history of U.S. journalism titled “Covering America.”

The 1971 Supreme Court ruling on the issue has shaped the landscape for reporting on government secrets. It also reminded the American people of something essential for our democracy to function, then and now: Voters have the ultimate power to tell the government what to do and not do in their name. To accomplish that, though, they first have to know what their government is up to.

It all began in 1967, at the height of the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara could see that the United States was not winning, and he wanted to know why. So, he ordered an internal review of what had gone wrong.

One of the analysts who would produce an answer for McNamara was Daniel Ellsberg, an ex-Marine who had served in Vietnam, come home to get a Ph.D. and worked at the Rand Corp. He had a high-level security clearance and a keen mind. Originally a supporter of the U.S. war effort, Ellsberg was undergoing a conversion into an opponent of the war.

Then, he faced the question of what to do about it. As a contributor to the study ordered by McNamara, he had access to a set of the final Pentagon report. He wanted the public to see what he had found: that Vietnam was a disaster, one into which president after president had led us deeper and deeper, always claiming that victory or “peace with honor” was just around the corner while knowing better.

With the idea of divulging its contents, Ellsberg began secretly photocopying the study in October 1969. Aside from the legal issues, copying the Pentagon Papers was a physical challenge. Each set ran to 47 volumes, about 7,000 pages of documents and analysis classified as “TOP SECRET — SENSITIVE.”

As Ellsberg well knew, the Pentagon Papers included secrets — everything from plots to carry out coups to estimates of other countries’ intentions. What it did not include was just as important. The Pentagon Papers contained almost nothing of any military value to an adversary. It was primarily a history of policymaking.

Ellsberg’s first thought was to get the Pentagon Papers released through a member of Congress, hoping that one of them would use his congressional immunity to introduce the papers into the Congressional Record. In the end, they all declined. So Ellsberg turned to the press.

In his mind, there was one obvious choice: New York Timesreporter Neil Sheehan. Earlier, Sheehan had covered the war in Vietnam, and Ellsberg believed (correctly) that Sheehan was opposed to continued U.S. involvement.

Sheehan, who died earlier this year, never identified Ellsberg as his source and never explained in detail how he acquired the Pentagon Papers. All he would say publicly was that he “got” or “obtained” the study — which was true as far as it went.

Once he did and the Times decided to commit to the story, the paper set up a secret “newsroom” at the midtown Hilton in New York City. The set held by the Times represented an unprecedented breach of the national security classification system, and anyone in possession of the report could face criminal charges, not merely of stealing government property but perhaps even of espionage or, ultimately, treason.

In one room at the hotel, Times publisher Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger assembled the newspaper’s lawyers to help him decide whether to publish anything at all. In another room, he assembled a select group of the newspaper’s senior editors and top reporters to wade into the documents and help figure out what to publish.

It all came down to Sulzberger. He would have to put all his chips — the paper he loved, his family’s legacy, the good of his country — on the table. He decided to publish.

So, on Sunday, June 13, 1971, the New York Times carried this banner headline:



The lead article, written by Sheehan, reported that a “massive” study commissioned by McNamara showed that four presidential administrations “progressively developed a sense of commitment to a non-Communist Vietnam, a readiness to fight the North to protect the South and an ultimate frustration with this effort to a much greater extent than their public statements acknowledged.” Significantly, the Times promised more articles and more documents in the following days.

At first, President Richard M. Nixon did nothing. After all, the summary he got from aides suggested that the Pentagon Papers were mainly critical of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson — both Democrats. But, fearing that he might look weak if he ignored the leak, Nixon eventually ordered a response.

On Tuesday, June 15, 1971, government lawyers asked the federal court in Manhattan to enjoin the Times from publishing anything further about the Pentagon Papers. That was a momentous step. It was the first time since the adoption of the U.S. Constitution that the federal government had tried to impose “prior restraint” on a newspaper, on grounds of national security.

From the newspaper’s point of view, the issue was the plain meaning of the First Amendment, with its sweeping ban against abridging the freedom of the press. From the president’s point of view, the issue was his duty as commander in chief to safeguard the nation by keeping its military, intelligence and diplomatic secrets, particularly in times of war.

In court, both sides pounded the Constitution. Judge Murray Gurfein, who had just been appointed by Nixon, promptly granted the government’s request for a temporary restraining order and set a hearing for three days later. The Times obeyed this order.

Later that week, however, The Washington Post obtained its own set of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg, and the newspaper’s staff swung into action, setting up a command center at editor Ben Bradlee’s house in Georgetown. In one room the writers got to work. In another room the editors and lawyers got busy trying to decide whether to publish at all. Like Sulzberger, Katharine Graham, the publisher of The Post, was betting the house — the company, the newspaper, her family’s reputation. She, too, decided to publish.

That Friday morning, The Post carried a front-page story about the extensive Vietnam study, revealing that it now had the same classified materials as the Times. Government lawyers asked the U.S. District Court in Washington to impose prior restraint on The Post. While Judge Gerhard Gesell refused, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit reversed him, forcing The Post to also stop sharing the Pentagon Papers with the American public.

By week’s end, the cases were headed to the Supreme Court on a fast track. Within a week the high court, acting with rare speed, heard arguments and made a ruling allowing the Times and The Post to resume publication. Although the justices wrote nine separate opinions, it was a clear-cut victory for press freedom and the public’s right to know. “The press [is] to serve the governed, not the governors,” as Justice Hugo Black put it.

An edited version of the Papers was soon published in book form, and the American people could finally see for themselves that one president after another had misled them about the war.

Even so, the victory for the people’s right to know left many issues unsettled.

In recent years, the issue of leaks to the news media has persisted. During the Trump administration, for example, officials gathered metadata about the phone records of Washington Post reporters and went after a CNN reporter’s phone and email records.

Democrats do it, too. Under President Barack Obama, the federal government set a record for criminal prosecutions of leakers, and those cases often involved journalists being hauled into court and ordered to reveal their sources or face time in jail.

Aside from punishment for government employees and contractors who leak, the issue of “publication” is more complicated than before. Thanks to the rise of digital platforms on the Internet, such as WikiLeaks, the notion of “prior restraint” is a bit antiquated, since publication now takes place globally at the speed of light.

The Pentagon Papers also pointed out another problem that remains unresolved: the excessive use of classification to keep all kinds of material away from the public.

The real issue for our time remains whether governments have (or should have) the power to chill unauthorized leaking by punishing individuals after the fact. Ultimately, however, the issue is not what rights leakers or journalists may have. In the end, the paramount issue is the public’s right to know what the government is doing. Lacking that knowledge, no people can long govern themselves.


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How conservatives (wrongly) detect liberal bias in the news

By Christopher B. Daly

Today’s NYTimes provides a clear-cut example of how conservatives often mis-read or mis-hear the news and jump to the wrong conclusion. Most of the time, conservatives are sure they are seeing a political bias when, in fact, what they are seeing are professional values.

Here’s the story:

The Times ran a story under the headline: ‘No One Believes Anything’: Voters Worn Out by a Fog of Political News. The implication was that there is too much news about impeachment.

As the story unfolds, the Times reporters quote a computer programmer in Idaho named Russell Memory.

But he said he sees bias among liberal news outlets and that drives him crazy too. He was annoyed, for example, that stories of Mr. Trump being booed at the Washington Nationals baseball game were given top billing, but when Mr. Trump was cheered in Alabama a few days later, he could find almost nothing about it.

“I don’t think things are fake, they’re just one-sided,” said Mr. Memory, 37. “Both things happened. He got booed and he got cheered. But one of them will be a much bigger story. That’s what bothers me.”

This is a classic example of confusion.

The fact that a sitting president got booed while attending a World Series game in the District of Columbia was unusual. That is, it was statistically rare. Therefore, it was news. Any journalist would agree.

Trump at the Nationals game.

As for Alabama, the fact that a Republican president went to a bright-red state for a football game and was cheered is entirely to be expected. It is not unusual. Therefore, it is not news. Any journalist would agree.

Trump at the Alabama game.

Of course, ideologues on talk shows could be expected to jump on either case as ammunition for their side. That’s not news either.

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Election 2020: Cover Trump’s campaign manager

By Christopher B. Daly

Memo to the national political press corps:

Who is Brad Parscale?

If you are a member of the national press corps covering the 2020 election, chances are you know who he is. If not, the chances are pretty much nil.

Brad Parscale is Donald Trump’s campaign manager. He should be covered every day, because he is almost certainly up to something every day. But most voters do not know what he’s up to, and chances are that they will never find out — until it’s too late.

Brad Parscale, the campaign manager for the Trump campaign, arrives at the Trump Tower in New York on November 17, 2016.

One thing Brad Parscale has been up to recently is waging a campaign to get the states to shut down their Republican primaries, so Donald Trump will not have to face any challengers. Instead, Parscale wants to spare Trump the expense of mounting a primary campaign and spare Trump the need to defend his policies against actual conservative critics.

Voters could be excused for not knowing that Trump is opposed in his own party by at least three candidates: former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, and former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh. They recently co-wrote an oped that ran in the Washington Post complaining that Trump’s high-handedness was depriving Republican voters of choice.

“In the Trump era, personal responsibility, fiscal sanity and rule of law have been overtaken by a preference for alienating our allies while embracing terrorists and dictators, attacking the free press and pitting everyday Americans against one another,” they wrote. “No surprise, then, that the latest disgrace, courtesy of Team Trump, is an effort to eliminate any threats to the president’s political power in 2020. Republicans have long held primaries and caucuses to bring out the best our party has to offer. Our political system assumes an incumbent president will make his case in front of voters to prove that he or she deserves to be nominated for a second term.”

This is exactly the kind of thing that the national political press corps should be covering. If you are covering something that Donald Trump wants you to cover (like his hostile threats against Iran), you are probably covering the wrong thing.

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On Reading Walt Whitman

By Christopher B. Daly 

I have been reading American literature for most of my life, but I had never read Walt Whitman’s masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, out loud. Until yesterday.

I took a couple of hours and ran through the whole 1855 version of the great, sprawling poem. Whitman himself said his poem was meant to be read aloud, and I now see why.  So many wonders leap out when the poem is read aloud — strong, varied rhythms; slashing sarcasm; a character/narrator called Walt Whitman passing in and out; a cast of hundreds; poems within poems; a poke-your-ribs sense of humor; a deep respect for the many people in 19th C. America who were neither free nor equal.

I am working on a new book in which Whitman, who worked as a journalist when he was a young man, will feature in the first chapter. As I work on Whitman, I plan to post more of his great, very contemporary work.

For today, I want to highlight one such passage. This is part of the section of Leaves of Grass that would, in later editions, acquire the title “I Sing the Body Electric”:

The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred 

    .   .   .   .    it is no matter who,

Is it a slave? Is it one of the dullfaced immigrants just landed 

on the wharf?

Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the welloff

   .   .   .   . just as much as you,

Each has his or her place in the procession.

All is a procession,

The universe is a procession with measured and beautiful motion. 

(Leaves of Grass, Library of America edition, p. 122)



Walt Whitman, detail from the frontspiece to the 1855 edition. Engraving by Hollyer.


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What is democracy?

With a tip of the hat to the estimable Chris Lydon, host of the “Open Source” program on NPR, here is a gem written by E.B. White in the middle of World War II. 

We received a letter from the Writers’ War Board the other day asking for a statement on “The Meaning of Democracy.” It presumably is our duty to comply with such a request, and it is certainly our pleasure.

Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more unnamedthan half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.

— E. B. White,

Notes and Comment, The New Yorker, July, 3, 1943


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10 Ways the Media Could Improve Coverage of Trump (but probably won’t)

By Christopher B. Daly

After two years in office, President Trump has proven that he has one great skill: the ability to dominate news coverage. Not only does he generate a torrent of news, he has become a great manipulator of public opinion – distracting us, distorting facts, distributing conspiracy theories, and flat-out dissembling.

That approach to news-making presents novel challenges to the press corps. Those journalists who operate in good faith and take an empirical approach to the job should maxresdefaultbe proud of their important work. But to make sure that journalism is not misunderstood or undermined by others, these times call for high standards and new approaches. Clearly, Trump cannot be counted on to elevate the discourse, so it will be up to members of the news media to impose discipline, standards, and new protocols.

At the start of a new year, it is a good time to consolidate some of the lessons learned since Trump took office. Based on my decades as a reporter and on my research into the history of American journalism, I believe the following changes would begin to address the president’s rampage through the norms of journalism:


  1. NEVER, NEVER BROADCAST HIM LIVE. It is almost certain that he will say something false, knowingly false, kooky, plain wrong, insulting, or inscrutable. By carrying him live, journalists lose the chance to DO THEIR JOB – which is to fact-check, verify, provide context and background, seek out other points of view, etc. He has squandered the right to use mass media. He should always be on a delay, allowing a minimum of time to check his assertions, prepare a corrective chyron, or mute a flat-out falsehood.
  2. DON’T ALLOW TRUMP TO SERVE AS YOUR ONLY SOURCE. If the president tweets something, that might be news. But there is no journalistic reason to just pick up his tweet and run with it. We are not here to storify Trump’s tweets. Yes, his words can be parts of stories, but they cannot be the main or only source of information. “The President Tweeted Something” is not a headline anyone needs.
  3. DON’T SINK TO HIS LEVEL. You know what I mean.
  4. COVER HIS ACTIONS MORE THAN HIS WORDS. That is, cover everything he does, but do not cover everything he says. Cover his administration, not his person. There are dozens of appointments, actions, policy decisions, executive orders, and the like that make up the reality of a presidential administration.
  5. DIVIDE THE LABOR. Let the AP cover the few remaining, sporadic White House briefings. Under Sarah Huckabee Sanders they are practically useless anyway. And never broadcast or stream her live either. (See #1)
  6. STICK TO FACTS. Never exaggerate, and double-check every detail. In reporting on Trump, the error rate must be zero, because any mistakes will be used against the news media. Critics will assume that errors were made in bad faith, not in good faith. So, mistakes will be cited as “evidence” of a political agenda.
  7. FOLLOW UP. Trump generates so many promises and threats that it is nearly impossible to keep up, but it’s important to try. At his rallies, in his Twitter feed, and in his off-the-cuff remarks, the president leaves behind a trail of items that cry out for follow-up. Keep score.
  8. SPREAD OUT. Get out of the White House and report on what’s going on in departments, agencies, and lobbying firms. Trump takes up so much bandwidth that it’s easy to miss the shenanigans going on deep inside his administration.
  9. COVER THE FALLOUT. The policies of Trump and his appointees in Washington have impacts far from D.C. Travel around and see what the elimination of regulations is doing to our streams and forests. Find out how the rank and file soldiers and sailors really feel about this commander in chief. Ask people in other countries how the U.S. is affecting them. Get out of Washington, and report from the ground up.
  10. OWN YOUR AUDIENCE. Now more than ever, it’s important to connect to your audience. Show your readers and viewers how you are looking out for them – whether it’s by covering waste, fraud, and abuse in Trump’s world or by examining how his policies are affecting working families. Be the voice of the people – and let the people know it.

Throughout our history, journalists have faced many challenges. Now it is the turn of the admirable men and women who deliver the real news to carry on the great tradition of reporting on the sayings and doings of the powerful.

Pulitzer, Joseph - Verleger, Ungarn/ USA/ undatiertAs Joseph Pulitzer, a great publisher and editor who did battle with presidents in his day, defined the stakes in this challenge: “Our republic and its press will rise or fall together.”



Chris Daly, a former reporter with the AP and the Washington Post, teaches journalism and history at Boston University. He is the author of “The Journalist’s Companion” and “Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism.” 


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NYTimes is Thriving (not failing!)

By Christopher B. Daly 

Contrary to what President Trump says, the New York Times is thriving — not just in terms of its original, fact-based reporting but the company (and just as importantly)  is also thriving in terms of its business. The Times is growing and profitable. The Times has found enough digital subscribers to carry it far into the future.

The Times, which may be the country’s most im-images

portant journalistic institution, is enjoying a “virtuous circle” of professional and business success in which each type of success reinforces the other.

Great reporting –> more readers –> more subscriptions –> more money –> more great reporting –> 

How do we know this? From the sworn, audited statements that the NYTCo is obligated, by law, to divulge to stockholders and other investors every quarter. Let’s look at some highlights from the company’s latest quarterly report:

–The paper set a record of more than 4 million total subscribers worldwide. They are in every country and continent (including Antarctica!).

–That number includes a more important record: more than 3 million subscribers who pay for a digital-only subscription. This is important because those people are probably going to be around a lot longer than then 1 million or so subscribers to the print edition. Not only that, but the digital-only subscribers are customers who can be reached by the Times virtually for free. To reach them, the newspaper does not have to buy newsprint, operate giant printing presses, and pay for fleets of delivery trucks.

–The growth in digital subscriptions is accelerating. The paper reported a net increase in the most recent quarter of more than 200,000 — the best quarter since the “Trump bump” in the period right after the 2016 election.

–Digital revenue (the money the paper gets from all those digital subscriptions) is also rising. In the last nine months, it topped $450 million — or over $600 million a year, which is probably plenty of money to operate the Times newsroom indefinitely.

Profits are up. Operating profits rose 30 percent in the last quarter to reach $41.4 million — or, well over $160 million a year.

–The stock price is up.


NYT stock price 

Since Trump was elected in late 2016, the value of a share of Class A NYTCo stock has more than doubled.

At the Times, the business desk buries these stories, and the editors absolutely refuse to celebrate their good news or do anything resembling spiking the football in the end zone. But any way you look at it, the New York Times is not failing.


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